Will Democrats Learn to Love the Sequester?
As they originally admitted, it reflects their priorities better than most bargains.


Andrew Stiles

The crux of any potential “grand bargain” on the budget has always been significant entitlement reform in exchange for higher taxes. In the absence of such a deal, GOP opposition to raising taxes is often singled out as the main impediment. Perhaps it is because President Obama does a much better job of at least appearing willing and reasonable about entitlement cuts than Republicans do about tax increases. But meanwhile, his base, along with many Democrats in Congress, has always vociferously opposed any changes to entitlements and welfare programs.

That is why so many liberals were actively rooting for the supercommittee to fail. Labor unions and other activist groups threatened to withhold future support from Democratic supercommittee members who agreed to a deal that would affect entitlements. Robert Borosage, co-director of the left-wing activist group Campaign for America’s Future, wrote that “the programs for the poor and vulnerable are likely to fare better in event of failure, than in the event of a grand bargain.” Cuts to the military, on the other hand, were “long overdue,” he argued.

“If the supercommittee fails, as expected, it will be time to celebrate,” Paul Krugman suggestedJonathan Cohn of The New Republic was decidedly sanguine at the prospect of failure. “First, super-committee failure does not mean we’ve blown a chance to reduce the deficit,” Cohn wrote, noting that it would bring about the sequester cuts, which he described as “just a down-payment on what we should be doing about the deficit in the long term.” No inkling of today’s doomsday scenarios.

Elsewhere on the left, the sequester was (and still is) seen as an excellent opportunity to cut a bloated defense budget. “Most experts estimate that the defense budget would lose $600 billion to $700 billion over the next 10 years [under sequestration],” Fareed Zakaria wrote in 2011. “If so, let the guillotine fall. It would be a much-needed adjustment to an out-of-control military-industrial complex.”

Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, has been making a similar case for years. In 2012, Korb argued that dire warnings from the likes of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta about the impact of sequestration were “wildly exaggerated.” The defense budget, he added, “can and should reduce be reduced [sic] to 2006 levels, sequester or no sequester.”

CREDO Action, a left-wing organization, circulated a petition last year urging Congress not to do away with the defense cuts in the sequester. “Our defense budget is grotesquely bloated,” the petition read. “If there’s one thing we can cut, it’s defense spending.”

A recent Pew poll on federal-spending preferences found that most Democrats agree. Of the 19 spending areas included in the poll, the State Department and military defense were the only two for which more Democrats wanted to decrease spending rather than increase it.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the sequester-replacement plan drafted by Senate Democrats and endorsed by the White House included almost $30 billion in cuts to defense. And although the president has adopted a measured tone when it comes to prospect of further defense cuts, the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein notes that Obama has a long history of supporting such cuts. His nomination of former Republican senator Chuck Hagel for defense secretary is widely viewed as an effort to provide political cover for further spending reductions at the Pentagon.

These days, Ezra Klein is wondering if Democrats should “stop worrying and learn to love the sequester,” which would follow the argument he made in 2011. “The law will hit priorities Democrats care about, like education and research, but it’s hard to imagine an alternative that’s acceptable to Republicans and does less damage to core Democratic programs,” he writes. “Moreover, funding for those programs can always be restored later. But these defense cuts, as a number of liberal bigwigs have admitted to me privately, are a one-time offer.”

Which is probably true. Earlier this year, when House Republicans signaled their willingness to let the sequester take effect in an effort to gain leverage in budget negotiations, a top Republican senator told National Review Online he did not think the strategy would work because he thought “the president would go along with it. He wants to cut defense.”

The ongoing blame game over who created the sequester elides a couple of important facts that almost always go unmentioned because the media prefers to cast the GOP as the obstructionist party: First, Democrats and their liberal backers are not serious about reducing spending, and consistently view the defense budget as the only thing that can be cut without evicting the elderly from nursing homes. Second, the liberal base’s fierce opposition to entitlement reform has been as important a factor in scuttling grand-bargain negotiations as the GOP’s resistance to tax increases.

The sequester is certainly far from the Democrats’ implied preference of reducing the deficit almost entirely through tax increases (a split being billed as a “compromise”), and they will certainly try to pin the consequences on Republicans. But if, at the end of the day, Democrats have privately decided that an ill-conceived spending cut that targets one of their lowest priorities (the defense budget), while protecting their highest priority (entitlements), may not be so bad after all, who could blame them?

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review.